Interview with New Directions translator Susan Bernofsky
From Robert Walser (The Assistant, The Tanners) , to Yoko Tawada (Where Europe Begins, The Naked Eye) to Jenny Erpenbeck (The Old Child, The Book of Words), Susan Bernofsky’s translations from the German have been met with great acclaim and praise. New Directions intern Georgie Devereux interviewed Ms. Bernofsky on her various projects and her approach to translation.
Georgie Devereux: As a reader, I have found the experience of first opening one of your many translations not unlike landing in a foreign city. This is in part because of the language of your authors—beautiful and unsettling at once––and in part because the characters themselves are often experiencing a sense of displacement (the heroine of The Naked Eye by Yoko Tawada, or Joseph in Robert Walser’s The Assistant, for example). In reading translation, notions of displacement become somehow more poignant.
Susan Bernofsky: I’m so glad you have that impression! I think all books are like that to a certain extent—creating new landscapes we can wander around in—and it’s especially true of books that were written in other languages, since the structures and sounds of each language influence what gets written in them, so that adding foreign literature to our reading diet just increases the range of different sorts of literary environments available to us.
GD: How might a work initially written for a German audience impact an American one? How does our own cultural background inevitably enrich and/or hinder our reading of a text?
SB: Sometimes it’s quite unpredictable what books from one country will capture the imagination of readers in another one. Hesse’s novel Siddhartha has had such a major impact on generations of young people in the United States, and in Germany the book was never nearly as popular. The theme of searching for one’s own life path really struck a chord with young Americans in the 1960s, 40 years after the book was written. On the other hand, there are so many great works of literature written in German that are largely inaccessible to Americans because appreciating or even just enjoying them depends on local references. I recently loved a short novel called Folgendes (The Following) by a youngish German author named Thomas Weiss, a darkly comic account of the problems devastating an extended family in southern Germany, all of which, as gradually becomes clear, can be traced back to the family’s WWII heritage. The book features such jolly topics as displaced persons and incest, and its gallows humor—which is often roll-on-the-floor-funny in German—is completely dependent on the use of passing references to slogans, situations and figures only the German reader would recognize. One character pronounces the word “Krieg” (war) as “Kriech” every time she says it, which is often, and this dialect pronunciation has connotations of crawling on the ground and sycophantism. We have plenty of books like this in English too. Sometimes you can figure out how to translate them in a way that works. Jenny Erpenbeck’s The Book of Words is full of lines taken from German nursery rhymes that are crucial for the book, and I think it works in English nonetheless.
GD: I am intrigued by a quote highlighted on your website from your article “Disorienting Language”: “It is not simply that our perceptions change when we travel abroad; those who never leave their familiar surroundings condemn themselves to blindness.” I was wondering if you could describe your own experience of living abroad. How has it influenced your vision as a translator?
SB: Particularly when I was a young student living abroad for the first time—in Münster, Germany at age 19, and then Zurich at age 21—I felt as though the experience was noticeably changing who I was as a person. Even just experiencing different social conventions, such as learning to navigate the distinction between the informal and formal forms of address, “du” and “Sie,” not just on paper but in real life, forced me to think in a completely different way about the sorts of social hierarchies we establish and respond to here in at home often without even thinking about it. At first I had so little grasp of the German system that I asked my host professor, a kind and welcoming person, to call me “du” and was surprised to see how shocked he was.
It also made quite an impression on me to see how physically present the legacy of WWII was in Germany and how much more strongly this legacy made itself felt in everyday life than I was expecting. The last war fought on American soil was a century and a half ago, and so the way we think about war is very different.
In general, experiencing how people in other countries live their lives—what they eat, how they socialize, the role politics plays in everyday interactions, how minority groups are incorporated into or excluded from society as a whole, the different sorts of rituals surrounding shopping, eating and drinking and the pace of it all—is a good way to stop taking our own lifestyles and attitudes for granted and thinking about them as choices. As a translator you mediate more than just linguistic expression.
GD: This spring, New Directions will publish Robert Walser’s Microscripts, a collection of writing on scraps of paper and written in a miniature German script. Could you describe this project? How did it come to be translated? Can you read Robert Walser’s original handwriting?
SB: This project came about as a co-production with Christine Burgin Gallery after Burgin fell in love with Walser’s miniature manuscripts (both the sheets of paper and the handwriting that covers them are unbelievably small) and decided to put together an exhibition of them in New York, due to open in the spring of 2010. The volume Microscripts will serve as a catalogue for the exhibition—it will contain a number of high-resolution facsimiles of Walser’s beautiful manuscripts—and at the same time is a collection of stories from his late work. These stories remind me of Beethoven’s late string quartets: by the time Walser writes them, he’s become such a master storyteller that he starts playing drastically with narrative form and convention, producing truly wacky texts that are both startling in their proto-postmodernism and deeply moving in their reflection of the difficult circumstances under which they were written. Leaving aside the difficulty of the stories as texts, the handwriting they were written in was so tiny that when these manuscripts were first discovered after Walser’s death in 1956 they were thought to have been written in secret code. In fact they were written in a now-antiquated form of German handwriting shrunken down to a height of between one and two millimeters. What’s more, Walser wrote them in pencil, and his pencil was not always sharp. Two scholars in Zurich devoted 12 years to deciphering six volumes’ worth of these texts, and for one of those years (1987-88) I had the privilege of working in the next room on what would become my first book of Walser translations (Masquerade and Other Stories).
GD: In your translator’s note to The Naked Eye, you write how Yoko Tawada ended up composing two separate manuscripts––one in German and one in Japanese––simultaneously as parts of the novel came to her in either one or the other language. How do you think the two texts work together? What were some of the translation issues that arose from such a unique project?
SB: I would love to know which passages were originally written in which language, but the version I read was all in German, and the transitions are pretty seamless. This is interesting because in Tawada’s earlier work it sometimes has seemed to me that her Japanese-language prose is more dense and more densely punning than in German (though she loves German-language puns as well). I suspect that she developed her own transitional style to negotiate between the two languages in the course of preparing the twin manuscripts (fraternal twins!). I hear that a Japanese doctoral student is working on a dissertation on the difference between the Japanese and German-language manuscripts of the novel—that should be interesting!
GD: What is the difference between working with texts by living authors, as with Tawada and Erpenbeck, and working with Walser, for example?
SB: It’s so helpful to work with living authors who take an interest in the work of their translators, particularly in the case of Tawada and Erpenbeck, both of whom play a lot of with language in ways that don’t always translate well. The Tawada story “Where Europe Begins,” for example, ends with a catalogue of elements from the story whose names spell out the word “Moscow.” I had to find images that began with the right letters. And in Erpenbeck’s novel The Book of Words there’s an entire passage based on the fact that a German dialect word for carnations means “little nails.” In this case too I had to find a suitable image. In both cases (as in many others), the authors were enthusiastic about my desire to write equivalent passages that could be knitted into their stories without disrupting the reading experience in the way that would had happened if I had stuck to a literal translation and added footnotes, for example. This has made me bolder about taking similar liberties when I translate Walser. It’s always a very serious judgment call as to which sorts of changes are permissible or even desirable. Walser’s story “New Year’s Page,” for example, begins with a rhyme in German, “Wende reimt sich auf Hände, Wände.” Literally that would read “Turn [as in “turn of the century,” but here referring to the “turn” of the new year] rhymes with hands, walls.” All three nouns rhyme in German, and the next sentence goes on to relate how a visitor arrives and knocks on the door. I decided that my highest priority would be translating the “rhymedness” of the sentence and the sense that the rhyme was serving as a launching pad for the next sentence, so my translation reads: “Year rhymes with near, appear.” I would have liked to ask Walser’s permission to transform his sentence in this way, but he doesn’t respond to e-mails.
GD: Would you be able to narrate how you came to be a translator?
SB: I started translating at a very young age—I was still a high-school student—because I was already planning to be a novelist when I grew up, and a teacher recommended translation as a writing exercise, even though my grasp of the German language at that point was pretty sketchy. Translation turned out to be so much fun that I kept doing it on the side over years in which I was doing lots of other things (writing fiction, pursuing a doctorate, teaching). I still think it’s fun, even though it’s much harder than I thought it was when I was just starting out.
GD: Could you tell us about your upcoming projects?
I’m just finishing up a new Jenny Erpenbeck novel for New Directions, Visitation, a book whose main character is a house. It’s a fascinating story, a sort of concise chronicle or saga that takes us through all the various upheavals of twentieth-century German history—but rather than being different generations of a single family, the characters in the book come from various families that overlap with and replace one another—sometimes peacefully, sometimes not. It’s a compelling, mysterious book, and I’m stunned by how skillfully Erpenbeck weaves the strands of the various stories together. There’s one passage in which she writes about children playing in a garden, and after a certain point you realize that some of these children are literally in the garden of the house while others are many thousands of miles away, in exile after their families were forced to flee—in the storytelling she turns the narration of a historical moment into a sort of outward explosion in space.
I’ve also been working on writing two quite different books, one a biography of Walser (we really need one in English!) and a novel that is in large part a response to the destruction of New Orleans, the city where I first tried my hand at translating.